There was a time when adventure games, driven by a charming and compelling narrative, were actually common. As technology advanced and general interest began to gravitate toward faster and flashier, our video games changed. Priorities shifted, which is why big-budget productions today often don’t rely on the dramatic and cerebral. We’ve also lost a lot of that whimsical, goodhearted charm; much of what we see today is extremely dark, gritty and even downright disgusting. That’s why a trip down memory lane with Manny Calavera and friends is just so darn refreshing.
Yes, it’s true, a game that first released in 1998 won’t stand up to today’s graphical standards. However, for those who understand that visual presentations are about more than the number of pixels and overall clarity, they’ll appreciate the wonderful artistry in Grim Fandango Remastered. It’s subtle and kooky; it’s even comical and occasionally over-the-top. But such terms should only be applied in a lighthearted way. If you’re a fan of the game, you know what I mean. Sadly, I will admit that they didn’t do quite enough for a remaster; the textures look just about the same, for example.
The sound fares better, simply because the audio has always been unique and extremely well orchestrated. I’ve always loved the effects in Tim Schafer’s games and the soundtracks are usually carefully selected and nicely implemented. Honestly, one of the reasons why his games feel so original and engaging is because the developers never ignored the importance of great sound. Again, this sound is outdated in direct comparison to today’s productions, but I don’t have a problem with that. To me, it doesn’t lessen the immersion or have a negative impact on the quality; it’s merely an older style and in many ways, almost a design choice. It’s not simply inferior tech.
Manny Calavera is a travel agent in the land of the dead, so he’s surrounded by other dead characters. On the surface, and based on what we know of games today, one might assume this to be a dark and perhaps even horrifying atmosphere. But it’s quite the opposite. There are some bizarre sights and sounds, obviously, but it’s all amusing and tongue-in-cheek; it’s more of a farce than a drama. There’s even some romance, as the main character takes off after his heart’s true love and in so doing, embarks on quite the journey, during which he’ll encounter all sorts of colorful characters. For instance, Glottis is Manny’s closest friend and he’s the very definition of a “character.”
The Mexican influence is clear from the start, as Manny explores Mictlan, the afterlife as believed by the Aztecs. The environment is surreal and absorbing, and the artistry reflects the designer’s interest in Aztec and South American culture. If you’re familiar with Dia de Muertos, you’ll probably know what to expect from Grim Fandango. And if this is indeed what the afterworld is like, we can all look forward to a funny albeit bizarre world, where laughter is more prominent than any other emotion. Beneath that humor, however, are quaint traits like tenderness and hope. In other words, it’s an adventure steeped in lighthearted goodness, which is of course in stark contrast to its decidedly grim setting.
As for the gameplay, this is a puzzle-based quest with a console-based twist. It’s not all about pointing and clicking (hence the term, “point-and-click adventure”), like so many PC adventures of the day. In this case, you take direct control of Manny; you can opt to utilize the original tank controls, or you can take advantage of the updated control scheme that undoubtedly makes more sense. The PC version of this reimagined title does offer the point-and-click option as well but in my opinion, the game works better with direct control. There’s a streamlined inventory system as well, as you simply cycle through each item in Manny’s jacket to find what you need. There’s great balance here.
As for the puzzles, I won’t say they’re all exquisitely designed, nor will I say I enjoyed them all. I never did even when I played the game way back when. I find some of the puzzles too frustrating due to a complete lack of direction, although I admit that with proper exploration and diligence, the solution will usually reveal itself. If you’re a meticulous, even anal type of player and you indulge in such gameplay, you will inevitably adore Grim Fandango. At the same time, if you’re stepping back in time to play a classic you missed, you have to accept that game design has come a long way. Despite what some vets might think, there’s a big difference between the occasional hint and outright hand-holding.
Then there are some minor control issues that were common in the late ‘90s. For instance, it’s too easy to make a mistake with Manny, thereby sending him somewhere you didn’t want him to go. It’s easier to deal with this drawback if you opt for the regular controls, but such a shortcoming never fully disappears. Remember, it’s simply the nature of the game. Over the years, control has been refined and fine-tuned, to a point where old-fashioned schemes feel clunky and irritating. Combine this with what some might call a disappointing graphical upgrade, and this remaster will have its fair share of detractors. You just have to know what you’re getting into.
If you’re a student of gaming or if you want the complete walk down memory lane, you’ll want to sample the developer commentary as well. Tim Schafer is always worth listening to and the Double Fine team has plenty of gems to share, so listening to the commentary gives you a special appreciation for this particular title. One gets the feeling that everyone had a ton of fun making this game and frankly, “fun” is a term that has changed drastically over the past fifteen years or so. Our interactive entertainment always used to be something…well, different than it is now. I’m not saying better; just different. That much is obvious when playing older games like this.
Grim Fandango Remastered is a masterful puzzle/adventure that will go down in history as one of the most unique and atmospheric video games. The graphics aren’t really spruced up all that much (they didn’t do anything to the cut-scenes, as far as I can tell), and there are a few old-fashioned control quirks and design flaws, but these are minor shortcomings. It’s extremely tough to find such games these days, so if you’ve never had the pleasure, here’s your chance to play something completely unlike the other games in your current till. If you want to test your puzzle-solving skills and you have a special place in your heart for traditional adventure games and zany characters, this is a must-try.
The Good: Retains all the old charm and charisma of the original. Refreshing focus on well-designed puzzles. Multiple control options for vets and newcomers alike. Uniquely artistic with inspired set pieces. Streamlined, accessible gameplay. Developer commentary adds a lot to the package.
The Bad: Not enough done with the visuals for a remaster. Control can be finicky. Overall design isn’t always impressive.
The Ugly: “The day Tim Schafer does anything ‘ugly’ is the day pigs fly.”